EWING -A member of the United States Representatives since 2015, U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) has a lifetime of politics and government behind her, her reputation as a fighter for the dispossessed no less tangible than her pragmatic record as a power player in the machinery of New Jersey.
Daughter of the late Assemblyman John Watson, Ms. Watson Coleman served for 17 years in the state assembly, fulfilled a four-year stint as assembly majority leader, and won her congressional seat in 2014 in part as a consequence of her consistency as a Democrat in the face of attacks on her understanding of core priorities by then-Republican Governor Chris Christie.
On the Friday ahead of an historic juncture in the United States House of Representatives, where majority Democrats face decisions about President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, including two infrastructure bills – one with a Sept. 27th deadline – InsiderNJ sat down with Congresswoman Watson Coleman to consider some of the pressing issues of these times.
Energized, engaged, conversational, politically astute and outspoken and – as always – politically progressive, the Congresswoman transmits a sense of urgency about the issues critical to her district, her state, and her country, and more hopeful than ever.
The (FULL!) Interview follows:
On the COVID-19 Booster Shot
I will take it the moment I am eligible to take it. I had COVID as a result of the January 6th terrorist attack on the Capitol. No one said the booster is available. They say it is not needed right now. There is no question of it being a danger to health. I am going to err on the conservative side and get vaccinated. I am angry and upset at people who are not getting vaccinated. We’re in this together and because of the unvaccinated we are testing the capacity of our healthcare system. We have a free public education system in this country, and those in opposition to the vaccine ought to be better educated and they should know enough to know better.
On Partisanship in the Country
The political partisanship is absolutely damning. Misinformation is so prominent right now. There are shows on TV that speak to misinformation by using logic and science but clearly a lot of people don’t watch them. They’re watching something else. A lot of people think the terrorist event was a stroll in the Capitol. It’s not just on the issue of COVID but misinformation in general. I don’t know what it will take, but I do have a lot of confidence in Joe Biden. He’s an every day Joe. I am hopeful those people who don’t like the Democratic elitists – itself an irony, given the money in the Republican Party – those who are not so informed, politically astute, or educated – I’m hoping he can get to them. I was really grateful he came to Manville. The former president wouldn’t have come, and if he did he would have been throwing paper towels at people.
On Climate Change, the Aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida and the Response by Presidency of Joe Biden
I’ve known him a long time. When he served in the U.S. Senate from Delaware, we called him our third senator. He always came across as one of us. That’s what I pick up on with him. He has a wealth of knowledge, he understands government and relationships. He’s someone who is socially sophisticated enough to bridge that divide between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Manchin, for example. He can be comfortable with both.
It’s amazing, the difference in the administrations. FEMA is now paying attention. We are grateful for the major disaster declarations. FEMA has set up in Ewing so people can access resources. We understand the impact of climate change, the impact of tornados and flooding. We have people who can’t go back to their homes. We have the resources and support. I am in constant contact with the chair of appropriations and we are in good stead to address the risks associated with climate change, a response that includes the infrastructure bills.
On the Infrastructure Bills: the first, “a brick and mortar bill”, as the Congresswoman calls it, totals $550 billion; the second, $3.5 trillion. The first bill “would pour federal money into physical infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, passenger rails, drinking water and waste water systems, as well as expanding high-speed internet and climate-related infrastructure. The White House says the investments will add an average 2 million jobs per year as part of President Joe Biden’s agenda.” The latter bill contains significant investments in working families, the elderly and the environment would total about $1.8 trillion, according to an early fact sheet about the proposal. “The plan would continue several tax credits that benefit low- and middle-income families, and especially those with children. It would extend the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, child and dependent care tax credit, and paid family and medical leave, according to a fact sheet outlining the budget resolution. The American Rescue Plan in March enhanced the child tax credit, boosting the benefit to $3,000 from $2,000 for children 17 and younger and giving an additional $600 for kids under the age of 6. Half of the credit started going out to families in July as monthly payments.”
Watson Coleman: It’s not a question of can we it’s a question of we must pass these bills. We need the bricks and mortar bill first of all, to address our roads and bridges and buildings, to build them in a more climate resistant way. Then there is the American Family bill. It is $3.5 trillion, yes, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ve ignored for so doggone long. This is a bill that has money for college education, for elders’ extension of medical services. I think both these bills have to be passed for the safety and security of our future. The cost of not doing anything is much that greater than the cost of not.
I am confident we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We are not in Afghanistan but we need to have our eyes and ears all over the world as we rebuild our own country. I am more optimistic now than I have been in a long time, not because we haven’t had Democratic houses and the presidency in the past but because the issues are now aligned, as never before, with the priorities we have in the White House.
On her Own Work, including priorities in various bills
I am engaged in numerous bills connected to voting rights, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, nd infrastructure, all issues polling high with the citizens. We have seen in the past a certain trepidation about being bold. But representatives should pay attention to what’s happening in your districts. People want bold action. When I was first elected to the assembly I was asked what my priorities were and I said that government must respond to the needs of the people. I am not Pollyannaish. That’s bull-crap. I’ve built alliances and I know government. The bills I am working on include those in the area of health insurance, where I am seeking more advanced ways of dealing with some of our social issues than incarceration. I am examining guaranteed income and ways of tracking how people spend it, for necessary things like transportation and childcare. I have a bill focusing on environmental justice concerns, called the shade bill. Our urban communities are hotter and less safe than communities that have trees. Let’s bring the temperature down with the shade bill. Introduced in the last four months, it’s racking up co-sponsors. There is another bill I have been advocating for, controversial but coming at the right time, which would shift the focus of personal substance abuse in the area of opioid drug use to a healthcare issue. Doggone it, we have overincarcerated people. Three strikes and you’re out hasn’t made people healthier and stronger.
The Congresswoman continues to have questions about the practical application of marijuana legalization:
We still must refine the issue of how we determine the degree of impairment if it’s marijuana, as it impacts the work environment. This is a very real question. But we are moving in the right direction. The prosecution of people for marijuana possession is responsible for a lot of black and brown men being incarcerated and negatively impacting families.
On Ensuring that the infrastructure bills fairly create Economic Opportunity
It’s an issue dealt with in the legislature. I have always enjoyed my relationship with labor; and it’s important to talk to labor leaders and I see some movement, significant movement now , with more apprenticeship programs. In the area of infrastructure, I have spoken to my colleagues and made it clear that when we build back better we don’t leave anybody behind. I’m very sensitive to civil rights. My first job was at the division on civil rights, enforcing laws against discrimination, so it’s a blessing now to work through those issues from that perspective. The President has said on the infrastructure bill that at least 40% of the economic benefit of projects has to accrue to communities negatively impacted. I said to [Transportation Secretary] Pete Buttigieg and Health and Human services Commissioner Xavier Becerra in advance of plans to secure goals reached that they must make sure projects target and positively impact [vulnerable] communities.
On Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge
Marcia Fudge is friend. She understands these issues. She understands how people face a lack of fair housing opportunities. She’s been a mayor. She was kind of like my mentor in the House. We sat next to each other, and I am really proud she is HUD secretary.
On Congressional Redistricting
You know we are functioning on a Republican map right now, and we are still at a 10-2 Democratic to Republican margin. It proves it doesn’t have to do with a map. It has to do with the work of candidates in their districts on behalf of their constituents’ issues. I expect there to be very little changes. The map now is essentially a 50-50 map. What you do with that is up to you. What we have done as Democrats resonated better than what Republicans offer. We have worked to provide resources people deserve.
On the 2022 Midterm and the 2021 Gubernatorial Election
My strongest argument for why Democrats need to maintain a majority in both houses is that the Republicans have been nothing but obstructionists. They have not protected their constituents against dying from COVID. They have not supported the rescue plans but they take advantage of them in their districts. In the Republican Party right now we are seeing a degree of evilness not seen before. It will be evidenced in the midterm elections, and we see it too in the gubernatorial race, where the Republican has only negativity. He is more Trumpian than when I knew him in the legislature. Republicans are not giving people a reason to vote for them. They are approaching everything from negative perspective as opposed to a hopeful perspective. You see the Republican candidate for governor, when he speaks about the insurrection in D.C., he doesn’t acknowledge that it was an assault on our democracy. So many initiatives, particularly in the area of fighting COVID, our governor has been bold. These are not political considerations. If we had a Republican governor, New Jersey would have been even more devastated by this horrible disease. The GOP is not giving people a reason to go out and vote. We see it elsewhere too. In California, people didn’t like [Governor Gavin] Newsom but they sure didn’t like what Republicans were offering, which was crazy mean-spirited negativity.
Last night one Republican member of Congress [U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez R-Ohio] who voted for impeachment announced that he decided he is not going to run against the Trumpian misinformation machine. He’s the Republican we need. But he’s afraid. I think that division will prove detrimental to the Republican cause. We have a chance, therefore, of expanding our majorities in the midterms or at least maintaining the status quo, because we are responsive to needs and we consistently demonstrate fairness. The Republicans are so far afield to the right. Those who would like to stand in opposition are scared of right-wing extremism. They’re scared of losing. Democrats have done the work. We don’t always do a great job of communication, but we doing a better job crafting our language every day.
On those political battles that defined her, including the 2013 gubernatorial election, and, most significantly, the 2014 Democratic Primary for Congress:
Barbara Buono offered herself as a candidate. She asked me to take on a role in her campaign and I did, and I hope I did a good job. Chris Christie once referred to me as a murderess, and said I was responsible for a person doing crime when he was out on parole. He was very selfish and not a very honest governor. We see that in the way he offered deferred prosecution agreements instead of prosecuting powerful entities. He’s transactional and doesn’t deserve any respect from us as a leader.
I am a progressive, yes, but I am also a team player. In 2009, for example, I was majority leader at the time and historically the majority leader moves to the speakership. The party made a decision go in a different direction. I did not allow that decision to negatively impact my relationship [with incoming Speaker Sheila Oliver]. As for the CD12 primary [in 2014] I was encouraged by a host of people to get in it. My desire to be a public servant was aligned with people in my district. My friends going in to that primary are my friends to this day. I’m here for a purpose. I don’t compromise my fundamental beliefs. My daddy told us the only thing you have is your reputation. Remain honest and true to yourself. Democracy is the best form of government in the whole wide world, and one of the messiest and most imperfect. But you change the system by being inside, and now is not the time for me to step aside. I have a lot to say. I don’t speak as often as others, but when I say something people listen. Government is most important for people who lack opportunity. For those who have it all, God bless. But for those who need government to do its job, to preserve and protect the floor under people’s feet so they may stand, that’s me. That’s the space I work in and will continue to work in.